Cheers — af­ter more than a cen­tury

Ex­pert tries some beer from a 125-year-old bot­tle; says it has ‘odd, meaty flavour’


An ex­pert on fer­men­ta­tion says lab tests have con­firmed the sudsy liq­uid in­side a cen­tury-old bot­tle found re­cently at the bot­tom of Hal­i­fax har­bour is in fact beer — a type of In­dia pale ale that has an “odd, meaty” flavour.

An­drew Mac­In­tosh, a pro­fes­sor at Dal­housie Univer­sity, says he tried a sip of the an­cient brew “for the sake of sci­ence.” He says it smelled like a burnt bar­rel with a bit of sul­phur thrown in, but he in­sisted there were lighter tree fruit notes and the dis­tinct bit­ter­ness of a once strong ale.

Mac­In­tosh, who works with the newly formed Cana­dian In­sti­tute for Fer­men­ta­tion Tech­nol­ogy, talked about his un­usual find­ings dur­ing an in­ter­view from his Hal­i­fax of­fice on Wed­nes­day.

Q : What did it taste like?

A: I wouldn’t re­fer to it as tasty, but it was a lot bet­ter than I was ex­pect­ing. It was as­trin­gent, a lit­tle salty. I was able to de­tect bit­ter­ness, but not ob­scenely so ... and there was def­i­nitely an odd, meaty flavour, which I pre­sumed was from some of the ni­tro­gen that would break down from the yeast.

I ex­pected far more salt con­cen­tra­tion and that it would be much less rec­og­niz­able as a fer­men­ta­tion prod­uct. This had a lot of traits: a lit­tle fruity but not cit­rus ... It had char­ac­ter­is­tics that clearly could be linked to a mod­ern fer­men­ta­tion of bar­ley.

Q : What did it smell like?

A: It had a very strong odour. It wasn’t al­to­gether pleas­ant, but it was in­dica­tive that it wasn’t sea­wa­ter ... There was a burnt, bar­rel-like smell to it. That wasn’t pleas­ant, but it wasn’t com­pletely off-putting.

Q : What did you hope to learn from th­ese tests?

A: We didn’t know that it was beer. It was a mys­tery liq­uid go­ing in. As I study fer­men­ta­tion, it would pro­vide great his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive to know how they brewed pre­vi­ously and how fer­men­ta­tion tech­niques have de­vel­oped over the years

We have records of how much grain was used, how much malt was used, how much bar­ley. How­ever, the tech­niques for brew­ing have changed con­sid­er­ably.

Q : How did you test the beer? A: We used a ster­ile sy­ringe and we in­serted it through the cork ... (Un­der the mi­cro­scope) it was just ut­terly swamped with dead mi­cro-or­gan­isms, which is to be ex­pected. It’s com­pa­ra­ble to what has been found be­fore in ship­wrecked bot­tles of beer.

We looked at den­sity, the colour of the beer, the pH (acid­ity) and we looked at the bit­ter­ness ... Ev­ery test that we’ve done in­di­cated that is was beer.

Q: What did you find?

A: Beer is typ­i­cally be­tween 4 and 5 (on the pH scale) ... What we found is that this was 4.3, which is ex­actly com­pa­ra­ble to a mod­ern Keith’s ... As for the colour, that is some­thing that can be sci­en­tif­i­cally quan­ti­fied. What we found was that it was sim­i­lar to a stan­dard pale ale.

Q : It was swamped with dead mi­crobes?

A: Yes. We have some lovely pic­tures of those.

Q : You said the beer reg­is­tered 15 on the bit­ter­ness scale. What does that mean?

A: That’s higher bit­ter­ness units than you would find in a lot of in­dus­trial, large-scale pro­duc­tion lagers. They are of­ten un­der 10 ... Even af­ter 120 years, it’s still more bit­ter than a mod­ern beer. That was quite an in­ter­est­ing find. It seems that the cork had made a very good seal. I’m pleas­antly sur­prised.

Q : What is the Cana­dian In­sti­tute of Fer­men­ta­tion Tech­nol­ogy?

A: We work with small brew­ers and com­pa­nies sup­port­ing craft brew­ing to bring in tech­nol­ogy they can make use of, and to un­der­stand the sci­ence be­hind fer­men­ta­tion.

We’re very small and very new. We opened our doors this sum­mer and we’ve had a lot of ini­tial suc­cess with some of the prod­ucts that we’ve been work­ing on. We used to fo­cus on the fish­eries. Un­for­tu­nately, that in­dus­try has not been do­ing a lot of fun­da­men­tal re­search lately. But the craft brew­ing in­dus­try has been ex­plod­ing in the Mar­itimes.


An­drew Mac­In­tosh, left, and Chris Reynolds, co-owner of a Hal­i­fax bar and an ex­pert on craft brew­ing, sam­ple 100-year-old beer in a hand­out photo. Mac­In­tosh, an ex­pert on fer­men­ta­tion, says lab tests have con­firmed the sudsy liq­uid in­side a cen­tury-old bot­tle found re­cently at the bot­tom of Hal­i­fax har­bour is in fact beer - a type of In­dia pale ale that has an “odd, meaty”" flavour.


An­drew Mac­In­tosh, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor with the depart­ment of Process En­gi­neer­ing and Ap­plied Sci­ence, works to ex­tract liq­uid from a cen­tury-old bot­tle, re­cov­ered from Hal­i­fax Har­bour by an am­a­teur SCUBA diver, at the Cana­dian In­sti­tute of Fer­men­ta­tion Tech­nol­ogy at Dal­housie Univer­sity, in Hal­i­fax, on Jan. 5.

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